Wartime Royal Visit to Malta.

Following the Allied victory in North Africa in May 1943, Britain’s King George VI was to pay a morale-boosting visit to British military forces stationed there. However, His Majesty was also desirous of making a visit to the island of Malta, from where British air and sea forces had mounted successful attacks on enemy ships transporting vital supplies and Axis troop reinforcements from Europe to North Africa. Yet, it was not just this strategic role that had brought Malta to the King’s attention; he had also been most impressed by the gallantry of the military, as well as the courage and sufferings of the local population throughout a sustained bombing campaign by the German and Italian air forces, the aim of which had been to bomb or starve the island into submission. Indeed, His Majesty had already acknowledged the ‘Island Fortress’ of Malta’s role, in April 1942, by awarding it his own decoration, the George Cross, ‘to honour her brave people…..[and] to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.’ The locals were proud of this touching act and soon took to referring to Malta as the ‘King’s Island.’

The King’s highly secret visit to North Africa and Malta, (known as ‘ Operation Loader’) commenced on the morning of Saturday, 12 June, when His Majesty (travelling as ‘General Lyon’) landed in a York Transport Aircraft in Algeria. That evening, over dinner in a villa in Algiers, the King broached the subject of his visit to Malta (which although already agreed to in principle by Churchill still required to be signed off locally for reasons of safety and security) with Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Naval Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, who was impressed by the strength of George VI’s arguments and needed little further persuasion. For good measure, the determined monarch also discussed the matter with Air Marshal Arthur Tedder, who informed his boss in London that ‘the King insists on going to Malta’.

Thus, at 8.15 am on a sunny Sunday June morning, King George VI, dressed in naval whites, hand at the salute, stood on a specially-constructed platform atop a turret of the heavily camouflaged British Royal Navy frigate, HMS Aurora (under the command of Commodore W. G. Agnew and flying the Royal Standard) as it entered Valetta’s Grand Harbour, having sailed the 200 miles overnight from Tripoli, escorted by the destroyers Eskimo, Jervis, Nubian and Lookout. The King’s visit had been kept so secret that local officials had not learned of it until three hours beforehand, for it must be remembered that there were enemy air bases situated a mere 60 miles away in Italy. Nevertheless, all the local vantage points were filled with cheering loyal Maltese civilians and British servicemen. When His Majesty landed by the Customs House, at 9.30am, the bells of local churches filled the air. The King later described this as ‘a very moving moment for me.’

George VI’s first port of call, in his open-topped car, was the Palace where he held a Council and presented John Gort, the Governor, with a Field Marshal’s baton. He also inspected the George Cross awarded to the island. The King then proceeded onto the Palace balcony and received a rousing ovation from the populace in the square below. Thereafter, His Majesty travelled to the Naval Dockyard. As most of the structures above ground had been decimated in the bombings, the King was shown over the underground workshops by Rear-Admiral Mackenzie. These were housed in a complex of tunnels, many of which had been excavated by hand.

His Majesty subsequently journeyed to the nearby area of Senglea which in truth, like the dockyard was, he later noted, but a ‘mere shell.’ Accompanied by Canon Emmanuel Brincat, the Archpriest of Senglea, he walked through the narrow streets, including the aptly-named Victory Street, and saw first-hand the ruined houses which had once provided shelter to the local inhabitants who, nonethless, turned out in droves to greet their Sovereign with flags and banners and confettti.

The King later travelled to the Verdala Palace, the current residence of the Governor, to partake of lunch, enjoy a brief rest and greet a party of 20 staff officers. George VI, accompanied by Gort, then visited Mosta, which had suffered heavy attacks as it was in the vicinity of Ta Qali Aerodrome. It was during his afternoon tour of the military aerodromes that the King knighted the New Zealander, Air Marshal Keith Park, who had overseen the air defence of the island. As the King’s car passed through local villages en route, flowers were thrown into the vehicle and although His Majesty was touched by the gesture, the fastidious monarch subsequently observed that this had been ‘detrimental to my white uniform.’

After dining with the Governor, the King embarked HMS Aurora which set sail at 10 p.m. for the return passage to Tripoli. It is worth noting that George VI’s visit was the first time a Sovereign had landed in Malta since 1911 and, as he reflected on it, His Majesty noted that it had been ‘a very strenuous day but a very interesting one to have spent.’ To Queen Mary, he described it as ‘The real gem of my tour.’

Crown Princess Märtha Eludes Nazi Regency plot.

Following the German invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940, King Haakon, his son Crown Prince Olav, daughter-in-law Crown Princess Märtha and three grandchildren (Ragnhild, Astrid and Harald) journeyed northwards by train, accompanied by members of the government, from Oslo’s Østbanen Station to Hamar in an attempt to evade capture. By the early evening, the royals had settled at an estate at Sælid, a few kilometres outside of Hamar, where they were just sitting down to dinner when word was received from the local police chief of the impending arrival of several busloads of German troops. The little group immediately set out by car towards Elverum, to rendezvous with members of the government who had fled there from Hamar, arriving at 10.30pm. However, the news there was equally uncertain and it was at this juncture that a decision was taken to send the Swedish-born Crown Princess Märtha and her three children over the border into neutral Sweden for reasons of safety. A royal convoy of three cars crossed the border into Sweden from Trysil, in the early hours of 10 April, and proceeded to the Høyfjellshotell in the ski resort of Sälen. As it was a glorious sunny day, the children spent most of the time skiing on the nearby slopes, while their mother remained at the hotel glued to the radio for news of events in neighbouring Norway. What she heard could hardly have lifted her spirits, as the Germans were now bombing Eleverum and Nybergsund, killing dozens of people. At one stage, King Haakon and his son Olav are forced to take shelter in a ditch to avoid being fired on by low-flying Heinkel bombers.

Crown Princess Märtha’s mother, Princess Ingeborg of Sweden arrived at Sälen a few days later, visibly tired yet ‘filled with a glowing hatred of the Germans’, according to one of the Norwegians, for her homeland of Denmark had also been occupied. Ingeborg was also deeply concerned for the welfare of her brother, King Haakon and her son-in-law (and nephew) Olav. Meanwhile, the Swedish authorities were nervous of the Norwegian royalty remaining so close to the border area so, thanks to Princess Ingeborg’s efforts, the royal party was able to take up temporary residence at Count Carl Bernadotte of Wisborg’s home at Rasbo near Uppsala.

After about two weeks, Märtha’s paternal uncle, King Gustav V of Sweden, who was known to have pro-German leanings (and had already refused a plea from King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav to cross the border into Sweden for fear of provoking Hitler) offered Crown Princess Märtha and her party accommodation at Ulriksdal Palace, on the outskirts of Stockholm. Although at dinner on the first evening, ‘everyone was terribly kind and friendly’, there was no discussion of the increasingly perilous situation in Norway, where King Haakon and Crown Prince Olav remained in constant danger from a crack unit of German commandos’ intent on their capture or possibly death. But Olav was also concerned for the safety of his children and wife in Sweden and wrote to President Franklin D Roosevelt from Trangen, Langvatnet, on 10 May, mentioning an offer which Roosevelt had made, in late April 1939, during the Crown Prince and Princess’ weekend stay at the President’s country home at Hyde Park, ‘to take care of the children’ if the war should reach Norwegian shores.

Märtha, meanwhile, spent time playing rummy and bridge each evening after dinner while the children and their nurse played games of tennis, swam in a nearby inlet or went picnicking. However, underneath, the minutiae of everyday Palace life, the Crown Princess was increasingly anxious about the future, for her sole communication with her husband was via courier and, as he was constantly on the move, that was sporadic at best. This left her in a very vulnerable position and soon Märtha was subjected to considerable political pressure from the Administrative Council (among others) in Oslo, who indicated that they wanted her and Prince Harald to return to Norway and cooperate with the occupying power in order to save the monarchy. This would, of course, involve King Haakon’s abdicating. The timing of this political intervention was no accident for, as the Germans were only too well aware, the Norwegian King was no longer in Norway as, following the decision of the Allied powers to withdraw from Norway, he and his son Olav had departed Norwegian soil at Tromsø, on 7 June, to settle temporarily in England and carry on the fight for Norwegian democracy there. To make matters worse, the Swedes also became involved in discussions over the future of the Norwegian monarchy. In a telegram to Hitler on June 16, the Swedish King openly encouraged the Germans to adopt a ‘Norwegian Regency’ model whereby Harald would be proclaimed king, although his mother would act as regent until the Prince reached his majority. Märtha was clearly aware of the growing danger and sent a telegram to London warning her husband and father-in-law that her Swedish family (i.e. King Gustav) and Hitler were conspiring to remove King Haakon and set up a regency.

It has to be said that there was now the very real danger that Prince Harald might be kidnapped and taken to Oslo. This must have crossed the mind of Crown Prince Olav for, on 22 June, he had written again to President Roosevelt from Buckingham Palace asking him to make good on his offer of sanctuary to his children, but this time he also included a request on behalf of his wife. Olav also made an approach to the US Secretary of State via the US Ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy, entreating ‘if there is anything you can do in a hurry to get the [Crown] Princess out [of Sweden].’ On 12 July, the US Secretary of State sent a message to the US Minister in Stockholm saying that President Roosevelt was arranging for a naval transport vessel to be sent to Finland to evacuate the Crown Princess and her family along with a group of ‘stranded’ US citizens. Both the German and British governments had agreed to grant the ship safe passage. The US Minister was now instructed to meet with Märtha and ascertain if she wished to proceed with this offer.

Meanwhile, in Norway, word had reached the Administrative Council that King Haakon was refusing to abdicate, thus placing in doubt on the regency option. According to the US Minister in Stockholm, the Administrative Council were now trying to reach a satisfactory agreement with the German occupying authorities, whilst also being careful to avoid upsetting the local population by attempting to ‘dethrone’ Europe’s only elected Sovereign. A National Council was proposed to conduct state affairs while the King remained overseas.

On 18 July, Märtha received a telephone call from the Norwegian Minister in Washington, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. He informed a somewhat surprised Crown Princess (who, not unsurprisingly, seems to have been in the dark about Crown Prince Olav’s recent correspondence with Roosevelt) that an American warship was being sent Finland to transport her and her children to the US. On 20 July, Märtha received the US Minister to Norway, Mrs Florence Harriman, who was now ensconced temporarily at the US Legation in Stockholm, and indicated to her that she was happy to accept President Roosevelt’s offer. Nevertheless, Märtha was keen to emphasise that she wanted to enter the US ‘as quietly as possible’ and ‘would not be required to meet reporters or a reception committee’. The Crown Princess also clearly hoped the date of her arrival would be kept confidential.

On 22 July, Mrs Harriman was informed by the US State Department that a naval transport, the USS American Legion, was about to leave for the Finnish port of Petsamo (now Petsjenga, Russia) and should reach there around 5 August. It was also made clear that there was ‘no possible way’ the Crown Princess’ arrival in the US could be kept confidential. Indeed, soon after Märtha left Ulriksdal, on 12 August, the Norwegian Legation released a statement to the press, also broadcast over Radio Sweden, stating that the Crown Princess and her three children ‘will leave for the United States in the next few days to visit President Roosevelt’ who had issued ‘a personal invitation’ to the Norwegian royals. In the interim, the Crown Princess travelled northward into Finland and on to Petsamo where, on 15 August, she and the royal children embarked the American Legion which transported them across the Atlantic to New York. Märtha appeared on the ship’s manifest as ‘Mrs Jones.’ Others in the party included her Chief of Staff, Peder Anker Wedel Jarlsberg, a Lady-in-Waiting, Mrs Ragni Østgaard, the latter’s son Einar and the royal children’s nurse, Signe Svendsen. Touchingly, Prince Harald was pictured clutching his beloved teddy bear. However, in her luggage, Märtha also had a touching, splendid farewell gift from her mother: a magnificent suite of emerald and diamond parure which had once belonged to Queen Sophia of Sweden. The intention was that should the Crown Princess ever be in financial difficulties, during these difficult war years, she could raise cash by selling the parure.

The author of this blog takes a keen interest on the fate of royalty during World War II. He examines the wartime adventures of Princess Olga (the onetime Consort of the Prince Regent of Yugoslavia) in Africa (and much else besides) in the new biography Princess Olga of Yugoslavia: Her Life and Times published on 1 April 2021 by Grosvenor House Publishing. This is now available to purchase on Amazon in hardback or e-book.

Yugoslav Royals’ ‘Private’ Visit to London 1939.

As the volatile political situation in Europe throughout the spring and early summer of 1939 threatened to escalate into war, Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia, whose Balkan Kingdom was already under threat both from Italian expansionist desires and an increasing economic dependence on Germany, was feeling decidedly unsettled. A recent State Visit to Berlin, which included a massive military display, had only served to increase his disquiet. Worryingly, he also confided to his old friend, Infante Alfonso, Duke of Galliera, that Hitler was ‘mad’.

It must have been somewhat of a relief to receive a telegram from his friend, King George VI (‘Bertie’) asking him to pay a visit to London for ‘important, though informal, discussions with British Ministers’. Paul was the supreme anglophile: he had been educated at Christ Church, Oxford and counted the British aristocrats (and fellow Oxford graduates) Walter, the 8th Duke of Buccleuch and Robert, Viscount Cranborne (‘Bobbety’) as close friends. Furthermore, the British Queen Consort (formerly Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) had often entertained Prince Paul at her childhood home, Glamis Castle, near Forfar and counted him as a member of her ‘inner circle’. However, the Prince’s most recent link with England was through his wife, Princess Olga. The latter’s youngest sister, Marina, had married Britain’s Prince George, the Duke of Kent, less than five years previously. It also happened that King George VI was godfather to both fifteen-year-old King Peter of Yugoslavia and to Paul and Olga’s (British-born) eldest child, Alexander.

On 17 July, the Prince Regent and Princess Olga arrived at Victoria Station for a two-week visit. The Kent’s were waiting to greet them, as was Alexander, who was currently attending Eton. Although the visit was not a ‘State’ but a ‘private’ event, the royal couple’s strong links to the British monarchy ensured that they were quartered in great comfort in Buckingham Palace’s ground-floor Belgian Suite. The British press were suitably kind to the Regent noting that in Yugoslavia, ‘Prince Paul is bearing a burden a heavy burden and bearing it exceedingly well.’ Furthermore, as the senior ‘trustee’ of the Yugoslav crown, they observed that, ‘his policy is that nothing should be done which will jeopardise the position of King Peter when he attains his majority in two years’ time and will then take over the responsibilities of government.’ The press, nevertheless, praised Paul for ‘striving for peace within and without the country’ and acknowledged it had been ‘an exceedingly difficult task to hold the balance evenly between the [Orthodox] Serbs and the [Roman Catholic] Croats’ whilst also having to ‘resist the overtures’ of Italy and Germany.

On 18 July, Paul and Olga joined the King and Queen on the front stalls of the Little Theatre to watch the musical revue “Nine Sharp” starring the Australian actor, Cyril Ritchard. Next day, the Prince lunched and held talks with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at his residence, 10 Downing Street. Lord Halifax, the Foreign Minister was also present, as were various British military chiefs and the President of the Board of Trade. Paul was at pains to point out that Germany and Russia were in talks with a view to signing a non-aggression pact. If Britain did not consummate a deal with the Russians then Germany would. Later, the King invested Prince Paul as a Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Britain’s oldest (and most prestigious) order of chivalry. In the evening, Bertie and Elizabeth hosted a ball attended by 800 at which the Prince Regent and Princess Olga were the guests of honour. This would be the last major event to be held at the Palace until after the Second World War.

Yet, despite this lavish display of royal hospitality, the British press later seemed surprised that the Yugoslavs maintained such a ‘living sentiment’ for all things British which went beyond simple royal family ties, even although Britain had failed to offer Yugoslavia similar aid or guarantees as those offered to its neighbour Greece. Indeed, Lord Halifax, appeared slow to appreciate Dr Ivan Subbotic’s, [the Yugoslav Minister in London] recent entreaties for armaments and improved trade terms. This situation had continued despite the fact that the British Minister in Belgrade, Sir Ronald Campbell, had pressed his Foreign Office masters in London, prior to Prince Paul’s visit, for ‘more substantial assistance to this country.’ Campbell’s intervention was driven by a sense of embarrassment exacerbated by the Prince Regent’s oft expressed ‘surprise that we do nothing practically to help [Yugoslavia].’ Campbell was also aware that despite the lack of British military aid, Halifax had tried to press the Regent into making some sort of declaration as to what Yugoslavia intended to do should Germany invade Romania. Paul was furious at such a crass display of diplomacy, fearing that such a declaration would antagonise the Germans at a time when his country was short of arms and unprepared militarily. Furthermore, it remained a delicate time in Yugoslav internal politics, as the Prince was involved in trying to obtain an agreement (Sporazum) between the Serbs and the Croats. (This would eventually be achieved in late August.)

Meanwhile, in late July, following a weekend stay at the Duke and Duchess of Kent’s home at Coppins, near Iver, the Prince Regent entered a London nursing home for three days for an operation by orthodontist Mr Bowdler Henry on a wisdom tooth. He and Princess Olga departed for their summer home in Slovenia on 2 August. The couple’s loyal friend, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon waved them off at Victoria Station. However, the presence of 100 policemen, who formed a tight security ring around the Prince Regent (there had been numerous death threats against Paul over the years), somewhat unsettled Chips and caused him to take ‘a gulp of misery’ while wondering what the future held for his friends. Prince Paul, for his part, was left with the distinct impression that Britain had little interest in coming to Yugoslavia’s aid.

On 22 August it was announced-as Prince Paul had predicted to British officials in London-that Germany and Russia had signed a Treaty of Non-Aggression. The British press succinctly noted that ‘Nazi-ism and Bolshevism… are now shaking hands’. Worryingly, the Treaty had a secret protocol appended to it which divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence and gave the green light for further German advances, particularly into Poland. Indeed, within weeks, Germany would be at war with both Great Britain and France.


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Order of Canada.

As today is Canada Day (formerly Dominion Day) I thought it worth mentioning the history of this great order. In days gone by, Canada-as with the other Dominions- received a quota of honours through the British ‘imperial’ honours system. However, as each of the Dominions forged a stronger sense of nationhood, it seemed inevitable that they should adopt their own honours system. Canada (always the most sparing in the use of imperial honours) led the way with the establishment of the Order of Canada (Ordre du Canada) on 1 July 1967. This date marked the centenary of Canada’s elevation to the status of a Dominion within the British Empire.

Canada’s highest civilian honour recognises ‘ a life of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation’, and has as it’s motto in Latin, Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam (They Desire a Better Country). The insignia of the Order is a stylised snowflake of six points, with a red annulus at the centre bearing a stylised maple leaf circumscribed with the motto of the Order.

The Order has three levels: Companion (post-nominal: CC), Officer (OC) and Member (CM). Companions are restricted to 165 at any given time (although up to five extra Honorary Companions may also be appointed). Up to 64 Officers and 136 Members may be appointed annually. The Order has precedence over all Canadian Orders excepting the Victoria Cross (VC) and the Cross of Valour (CV). Recipients are recommended to the Governor-General (Her Majesty’s representative in Canada) by an independent advisory council, chaired by Canada’s Chief Justice, from nominations submitted by the public. The Queen of Canada is the Sovereign of the Order; the Governor-General is Chancellor and Principal Companion. Interestingly, the constitution of the Order of Canada states that the insignia remain the property of the Crown. It also requires that any member of the order must return their original emblem to the Chancellery should they be upgraded to a higher rank.

Royal Charity Event.

Every year Princess Olga of Yugoslavia organised and presided over charitable sales of work in Belgrade. These events were organised to raise funds for the many causes of which the Princess was Royal Patron, with the focus being on the welfare of mother and child. Olga was very ‘hands on’ and set up her own stall for the event, with items often sourced in London by her childhood nanny, Kate Fox (‘Nurnie’). In the accompanying image we see the Princess (on the left) preparing to sell her wares once the event has been declared opened by Queen Marie of Yugoslavia (pictured centre). To the right is Olga’s youngest sister, Princess Marina of Greece, a frequent visitor to Belgrade prior to her marriage to Prince George, the Duke of Kent.